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Theresa May on ‘glass cliff’ as prime minister

Theresa May was put on a “glass cliff” when she became UK prime minister after the Brexit vote, a leading researcher says.

In a keynote talk at the Royal Society’s annual Diversity Conference today (1 November), Professor Michelle Ryan, of the University of Exeter, will report on 15 years of research which reveals how women are more likely to occupy leadership positions in times of crisis.

She will also explore the psychological processes underlying the glass cliff, including gender stereotypes, signalling change and setting women up for failure.

The term glass cliff, coined by Professor Ryan and Professor Alex Haslam, is used to describe a situation where a woman ascends to a leadership position in which the risk of failure is high – a glass cliff from which she might fall.

“Whatever your views of Brexit, there is agreement that it is a difficult time to be prime minister,” Professor Ryan said.

“I don’t think it is a coincidence that Theresa May is leading us through this crisis, and it is noteworthy how many men stepped away from the leadership role – including David Cameron and Boris Johnson.

“Such glass cliff positions in times of crisis run the risk of reinforcing stereotypes that women aren’t suited for leadership.”

The research that led to the term glass cliff came about after a 2003 Times article which stated: “The triumphant march of women into the country’s boardrooms has… wreaked havoc on company performance.”

The academics felt the conclusion was unwarranted, and set about testing it.

They found that the appointment of women did indeed coincide with poor company performance – but this poor performance was in train before they arrived.

Women were being appointed in difficult circumstances and when businesses were failing. There was no evidence of a similar pattern for men.

Previous research on the “glass ceiling” had focussed on the quantity of top jobs filled by women, but Professor Ryan and Professor Haslam showed the quality of those jobs was also an issue.

Date: 1 November 2018

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